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Gluten - Wheat or Not to Eat

Most of us have been brought up to believe that grains are healthy foods. However, an increasing body of evidence indicates that grains that contain gluten might actually be harmful to our bodies and overall health.

Approximately 1 in 133 people have celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that allows gluten to attack the small intestine. 14% are intolerant to gluten, yet do not have celiac disease and many others have chosen to eliminate gluten from their diet even though they have not received a diagnosis.

History of Grain Consumption

Humans have been consuming grains for thousands of years but only in specific regions of the world. Our ancestors foraged for fruits and nuts, and animals provided the bulk of their protein.  The Far East was the first to cultivate grains for consumption about ten thousand years ago. As agricultural advancements grew, people began to alter their normal eating patterns and stopped relying on what Mother Nature provided each season.

When the Romans conquered Europe, grains became part of society. England, France and Portugal introduced gluten-filled grains to the New World but due to the high cost of grains it remained unaffordable until the modern age. Research suggests that the incidence of celiac disease (for those from European decent) is linked to the introduction of grains in Europe.  Populations with the shortest evolutionary exposure to grains appear to be the most likely to not process it well.

More than 6000 years ago an agriculture revolution occurred that allowed humans to sow and harvest wild seeds, and this movement moved our ancestors away from the natural hunter-gatherer diet that followed what nature provided.  This was a major introduction of gluten into the diet and continued as the Industrial Revolution brought steam-powered mills that were able to produce refined-grain flours that had longer shelf lives, thus increasing gluten consumption.  But it was the 19th century that brought the food pyramid (by the USDA), and this permanently placed grains in the American diet.  In addition, modern grains are higher in gluten content than in centuries past.

What is Gluten

Gluten refers to the protein content of wheat (gliadin and glutenin) that is responsible for the elasticity of dough. Gluten is found in wheat, barley, rye, spelt, faro, semolina, durum, kamut and triticale (a hybrid).

Gluten is classified in two groups including Prolamines and Glutelines, with the most troublesome component being Prolamine Gliadin, which causes the painful inflammation in gluten intolerance and activates the autoimmune reaction and intestinal damage found with Celiac Disease.  But both types can cause similar symptoms (bloating, gas, pain, diarrhea), yet many times there are no gastrointestinal symptoms. Celiac Disease is an autoimmune reaction to gluten that can cause severe degradation of the small intestine while gluten intolerance/sensitivity is the inability to digest the Gliadine without damaging the intestines.

The ancient wheat that Moses ate 3500 years ago was very different from modern wheat. The wheat of centuries past was mostly in a sprouted form and the sprouting process activated key enzymes that help the body digest and metabolize gluten. Industrialized wheat is not sprouted and current wheat varieties were bred to grow rapidly with larger yields that harvest more efficiently – therefore they contain more gluten without the inherent enzymes to break it down. Modern gluten has been added to hundreds of products and no longer was only a breakfast cereal but became an additive in literally thousands of items.

Wheat continued to change from just 100 years ago. In the mid-1800s a higher protein content wheat (which means higher gluten content) was introduced in the U.S. This ‘hard spring wheat’ resulted in fluffier bread and baked goods due to the high gluten content. In addition, hybrid forms of wheat were developed to be bug and drought-resistant and also contain new proteins (gluten) that were not found in original wheat plants.  These new proteins have contributed to increased systemic inflammation, higher rates of Celiac and gluten intolerance. In addition, today’s wheat has been chemically deamidated, making it water-soluble, virtually mixing into every kind of packaged and processed food.

Today wheat is the single most cultivated crop worldwide and in the United States many eat wheat at every meal, in snacks and even in dessert.

How Does Gluten Affect the Body

Whether you are eating organic grain bread or a rich pastry, the effect of gluten on the gut is identical.  Once the meal reaches the intestines, an enzyme produced in your intestinal wall called tissue transglutaminase (tTG), breaks down the gluten into Gliadin and Glutenin. tTG has many functions including holding together the microvilli (microscopic, hair-like structures on the surface of epithelial cells) in our gut. Nutrients are absorbed through the walls of our intestines and microvilli exist in our intestines to increase the surface area and maximize the absorption of nutrients.

For anyone with gluten sensitivity, the body produces antibodies to defend against gliadin and rather than processing the gluten, these antibodies attack tTG, causing the microvilli to atrophy and erode, decreasing the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. As the gut cells break down it causes leaky gut, allowing toxins, microbes, undigested food particles and antibodies to escape from the intestines and travel throughout the body. In addition, the antibodies produced to attack the gliadin escape and travel throughout the body, attacking other cells and organs. Basically your body is attacking itself and many do not realize they are sensitive to gluten because the assault takes place outside the digestive tract.

Celiac, an autoimmune disease includes the destruction of the microvilli. The antibodies often strike more than the microvilli, attacking other organs and systems. This is why gluten intolerance is frequently paired with autoimmune diseases and why patients with celiac disease are also at risk of developing a second autoimmune disease.

Besides Gluten-sensitivity digestive symptoms that include bloating, constipation, diarrhea, fat malabsorption, malnutrition and weight loss, iron deficiency (anemia), low Vitamin D and even osteoporosis can occur.

Gluten is Inflammatory

Gluten is a sticky, gelatinous storage protein that is very hard to digest because it binds the small intestinal wall where it can cause digestive and immune system disorders.  

Gluten is inflammatory and has been shows to damage organs and tissues even if the antibodies against gliadins or other gluten proteins are not present (such as in Celiac Disease).

In addition, gluten today is often preserved with formaldehyde, a known carcinogen.  Gluten has also been genetically modified and the most common carrier to move DNA from one organism to another is the E.coli bacteria. Research has shown that Bifobacteria, the healthy bacteria native to the intestines, were depleted in children with celiac disease while other unhealthy microbes includine E.coli strains were overly abundant and oddly virulent. 

The gluten molecule is very similar to the cartilage in joints and after a reaction to gluten the body will attack not only the gluten but also the body itself.

The biochemisty pathways for an anti-inflammation diet uses high alkaline foods, such as fruits, vegetables and Omega 3 fish oils and the pathways for inflammation are used by the body when the diet contains processed foods, grains and gluten.  Inflammation is linked to most chronic illness including heart disease, MS, diabetes, Macular Degeneration, Lupus, Arthritis and others.

Symptoms Associated with Celiac Disease and/or Gluten Sensitivity

abdominal cramps, bloating and gas, Joint and bone pain, depression, diarrhea, bruise easily, fluid retention, general weakness and fatigue, persistent hunger, iron deficiency anemia, malnutrition, mouth sores, muscle wasting, weakness and muscle cramps, nose bleeding, nutrient deficiencies, obesity, osteoporosis, osteopenia, panic attacks, skin rash, pale skin, vertigo, weight loss / weight gain, degree of lactose intolerance can develop, dermatitis, discoloration of enamel

Names for Gluten

bread,flour, wheat flour, whole wheat flour, wheat protein/hydrolyzed wheat protein, wheat starch/hydrolyzed wheat starch, malt, pasta, bulgur, spelt, kamut, barley, barley extracts, soy saunce, starch, malt extract, rye

The term Gluten can appear in many different ingredients on labels. Products labeled Wheat-Free are not necessarily Gluten-Free. Be a good label reader and look for the Gluten-Free claim. If an ingredient is questionable then don’t take the risk.

Foods that May Contain Gluten

beer, ales, lager, breading and coating mixes, brown rice syrup, caramel coloring, cereals, condiments, croutons, dextrin and maltodextrin (both often made from wheat), salad dressings, drugs (prescription and over-the-counter), Energy bars, flavorings, flour products, hydrolyzed plant protein, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, herbal supplements, imitation bacon and seafood, marinades, modified food starch, pastries, cakes, muffins, pies, processed lunch meat, sauces or gravies, seasonings, self-basting poultry and meats, soy sauce, soup bases, stuffings/dressing, thickeners, vegetable starch

Determining Gluten Sensitivity

  • Elimination Diet. The best way to determine whether you are gluten intolerant is to remove it from your diet for no less than 30 days, then reintroduce gluten and assess your symptoms. Many will test negative for Gluten sensitivity yet experience significant improvement when gluten is eliminated.
  • Food Allergy (IgE) and Food Sensitivity (IgG) testing. Helpful to determine presence of leaky gut, delayed onset food allergies and the possibility of a toxic liver condition. Can also determine if other foods are contributing to digestive problems.
  • Leaking Gut testing can help determine if the intestinal tract has been damaged but can also help determine if the intestinal tract is healing.
  • IgA Immunoglobulin A – Celiac patients are 10-15 times more likely to have low IgA. For those with normal IgA, the best predictor of celiac disease is a positive IgA Anti-tissue Translutaminase (tTG) and a positive Anti-Gliadin Antibodies (AGA) test.

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